Solicitor struck off for single incident of “manifest incompetence”

A solicitor whose incompetence enabled the transfer of an elderly man’s property to fraudsters for no consideration has been struck off.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said that, although it was a single incident in Mohinuz Zaman’s 19-year career as a solicitor, it had “no confidence” that he would not repeat the misconduct.

Mr Zaman, who qualified in 2003, was working at the time for two-partner Birmingham firm C&G Solicitors and maintained throughout the hearing that he had done nothing wrong.

In August 2014, he met with five people at his office, including ‘Person 1’, who was 26, and 65-year-old Person 3. Mr Zaman’s attendance note recorded that both wanted to instruct the firm to act on transferring Person 3’s home to Person 1 for no consideration as a “gift of love + affection”.

Mr Zaman prepared a statutory declaration which set out Person 3’s intention and that he was entering into the transaction freely. Its signing was witnessed by a solicitor at another firm. The transaction completed in November 2014.

In 2015, Person 3 complained to Trading Standards about Persons 1 and 2. In January 2020, following guilty pleas, the two “rogue traders” were sentenced to 54 months’ imprisonment for fraud and three years’ imprisonment for stalking Person 3 respectively.

Proceedings to transfer ownership of the property back to Person 3 were said to be ongoing.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) only became aware of what happened when contacted by the police in late 2018. There was no suggestion Mr Zaman knew about the fraud.

The tribunal found that Mr Zaman had failed to properly advise Person 3 on the implications of the transaction and acted where there was a conflict of interest.

Mr Zaman completed a ‘conflict of interest register’ after the first meeting, in which he said he would validate the instructions “by attending separately on each party” and that one party was “to attend upon an independent solicitor”.

He argued that he later advised Person 3 in person to seek independent legal advice and that the statutory declaration was sufficient to achieve this. He added that he saw no signs that Person 1 was attempting to defraud Person 3.

Person 3 was unable to give evidence due to ill-health but, in an earlier statement to the police, said he never saw Mr Zaman again after the first meeting. The SDT said this held “some weight” even though Mr Zaman could not cross-examine him.

The SDT did not find Mr Zaman a credible witness: “His answers were evasive and he repeatedly failed to answer straightforward questions directly.”

The potential for a conflict of interest was “glaringly obvious” and but the SDT found Mr Zaman had not held a separate meeting with Person 3. There was also no evidence on the file of “tailored advice” on the implications of the transaction.

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Further, “it would have been plain to any competent solicitor that a statutory declaration was not the equivalent to the provision of independent legal advice to Person 3 on the transaction and its risks”.

This failure went beyond oversight or “mere” negligence; rather it was “a comprehensive failure to meet the basic and obvious professional requirements to provide advice relevant to the situation, which could only be described as manifest incompetence”.

The SRA also charged the firm over the conflict of interest and Mr Zaman had argued that C&G was aware of it and allowed him to continue acting.

The firm denied this, saying supervising partner Jagish Chopra had not seen the conflict form as Mr Zaman did not add it to the firm’s central register.

The tribunal preferred Mr Chopra’s “straightforward and consistent” evidence, noting also that Mr Zaman had refused to answer questions put by the firm at the hearing.

“The tribunal did not consider it to be credible that Mr Chopra, as one of the two partners in the firm, and as an experienced solicitor, would have potentially put the firm at risk by failing to act had he been aware of such a profound conflict.”

Though the client-care letters said Mr Zaman would be supervised “at all times”, the SDT said this did not mean the supervisor would be aware of every aspect of every case. It was “reasonable that the extent of the oversight would be informed to some extent by the experience of the supervised solicitor”.

It decided that the firm’s systems to manage the risk of conflict and to supervise an experienced solicitor – meeting with him monthly and reviewing two files – were adequate.

In deciding to strike him off, the SDT said Mr Zaman’s failings had “helped create the environment” in which the fraud was effected. At the same time, it was “a single episode on a single file in an otherwise unblemished career”.

The tribunal was concerned that he believed he had done nothing wrong and in all it considered that he posed “a very serious and continuing risk to the public and the reputation of the profession”.

Whilst a strike-off “may not always be inevitable that a finding that a solicitor had acted in a specific instance with manifest incompetence”, here the tribunal saw “no basis to conclude that the position would be different after a period of suspension” and decided that striking off Mr Zaman was the appropriate sanction.

It ordered him to pay £20,000 in costs as well but refused the SRA’s argument that the firm should contribute to the costs.